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The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths):
Basic Presentation

Alexander Berzin
May 2002, revised April 2006

List of the Five Pathway Minds

In A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Abhisamayalamkara), Maitreya explains the stages for making progress on the spiritual path to reach liberation and enlightenment. For all practitioners, progress is in terms of the five pathway minds (lam-lnga, five paths), referring to five levels of mind we achieve that serve as pathways leading to liberation and enlightenment:

  1. a building up pathway mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation),

  2. an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation),

  3. a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing),

  4. an accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam, path of meditation),

  5. a pathway mind needing no further training (mi-slob-lam, path of no more learning).

Progressively Developing the Five Pathway Minds as a Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, or Bodhisattva

We may progressively develop the five pathway minds on three different levels, depending on our motivation and style of practice. The first two levels are as Hinayana practitioners; the third is the Mahayana level.

Note that in Buddhist terminology, motivation (kun-slong) refers to the mental factor of intention (‘ dun-pa) – the intention to reach a certain goal for a certain purpose. It does not refer to the mental factor of the positive or negative emotion, such as compassion or greed, which accompanies the intention and moves us to attain a goal.

  1. Shravakas (nyan-thos, listeners) strive to attain liberation (thar-pa, Skt. moksha) from samsara. Their motivating factor to reach that goal is renunciation (nges-byung) of true suffering and the true origins (true causes) of it, and the determination to be free from them. Listening to the teachings of a Buddha, they work to achieve their aim.

  1. Pratyekabuddhas (rang-rgyal, self-realizers) also strive, with renunciation, to attain liberation. They live during dark ages when the teachings of a Buddha are no longer available. They do not study with spiritual teachers, because there are none at such times, and they teach only by gestures, since others are not receptive. Living either singly (“like a rhinoceros”) or in small groups, they must rely on their instincts to learn of the Dharma.

  1. Bodhisattvas (byang-chub sems-dpa’) strive to achieve enlightenment and the ability to be of as much benefit to all limited beings (sentient beings) as is possible. The motivating factor to reach this goal is called bodhichitta (byang-sems).

Reaching One of the Three Purified States as One of the Three Types of Arhat

When the three types of practitioners reach their goals, they all become arhats (dgra-bcom-pa, liberated beings, “foe-destroyers”). They become:

  1. shravaka arhats,

  2. pratyekabuddha arhats, or

  3. Buddha arhats. A Buddha arhat is another name for a Buddha.

Moreover, each of the three goals is called bodhi (byang-chub), a purified state. Buddhahood (enlightenment) is also called samyaksambodhi (yang-dag-pa rdzogs-pa’i byang-chub), the full, perfectly purified state.

The Building-up Pathway Mind

Depending on our situations and motivations, we achieve one or the other of the two Hinayana building-up pathways of mind when we attain unlabored (rtsol-med) renunciation as our primary motivation in life “Unlabored” means that this mental factor arises without needing to work ourselves up to it by relying, step by step, on a line of reasoning. We achieve a Mahayana building-up pathway mind when we attain, in addition, unlabored bodhichitta as our primary motivation in life.

Having renunciation, or both renunciation and bodhichitta, as our primary motivations in life means that we have them manifest (mngon-gyur-ba) all the time, even when asleep. Having them manifest does not necessarily mean being conscious or attentive of them every moment from then on. Nor does it mean that we do not have other short-term motivations simultaneously, such as the motivation to go to the store to buy bread. Nevertheless, even when we are not consciously thinking about renunciation or bodhichitta, we still have the intention to achieve liberation or to achieve both liberation and enlightenment and to benefit all limited beings. We never lose that intention as our primary motivation in life, no matter what we do.

Further, to attain a building-up pathway mind, we need to have gained beforehand two levels of discriminating awareness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths:

  1. the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing correct information about them (thos-byung shes-rab), so that we can focus conceptually on the sixteen through the appropriate accurate audio categories (sgra-spyi, acoustic universal), but without any associated meaning to them,

  2. the discriminating awareness that arises from pondering them (bsam-byung shes-rab), so that we understand and can focus conceptually on them through the appropriate accurate meaning/object categores (don-spyi, meaning universal).

Both levels of discriminating awareness are in regard to both the details of each of the sixteen aspects and the lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, selflessness) in relation to each. The lack of an impossible soul is defined differently by each of the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of tenets.

[See: Sixteen Aspects and Sixteen Distorted Ways of Embracing the Four Noble Truths.]

The building-up pathway mind has nine stages or levels of mind – three initial, three intermediate, and three advanced. As we progress from one stage mind to the next, we “build up” first to the attainment of “shamatha” (zhi-gnas, a serenely stilled and settled state of mind, calm abiding) focused conceptually on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. This is the case whether or not we have previously achieved shamatha focused on another object. We follow that with building up to the joined pair (zung-‘brel) of shamatha and “vipashyana” (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, special insight) similarly focused.

[See: General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana.]

The Applying Pathway Mind

When we achieve the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana focused conceptually on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and thus gain the discriminating awareness of the sixteen that arises from meditation (sgom-byung shes-rab), we have achieved the second pathway mind. This is an applying pathway mind. With it, we apply our joined shamatha and vipashyana in meditation so that, progressing in stages, we will eventually gain joined shamatha and vipashyana focused nonconceptually on the sixteen aspects. When we have gained that nonconceptual joined pair, we will have gained the third pathway mind – a seeing pathway mind.

With an applying pathway mind, we have achieved a conceptual joined shamatha and vipashyana focused on the sixteen aspects that does not need to rely directly, step by step, on a line of reasoning for generating its ascertainment (nges-shes) of its object. In this sense, our certitude in understanding the sixteen is unlabored, although it derives from a line of reasoning. With a building-up pathway mind, we needed to rely directly on a line of reasoning to gain the same certitude.

The applying pathway mind has four stages:

  1. Heat (drod), with which we have joined shamatha and vipashyana on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths while awake.

  2. Peak (rtse-mo), with which we have it even when dreaming,

  3. Patience (bzod-pa), with which we have no more fears that our discriminating awareness might nullify completely any validly knowable “me.” With the attainment of this stage of pathway mind, we no longer will be reborn in any of the three worse rebirth states – as a trapped being in a joyless realm (hell being), clutching ghost (hungry ghost), or creeping creature (animal).

  4. Supreme Dharma (chos-mchog), with which we are able to apply our joined shamatha and vipashyana on the sixteen aspects to the nature of mind itself.

Attaining a Seeing Pathway of Mind and Becoming an Arya

When we achieve nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths during our total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) on them, we attain a seeing pathway mind. At this point, depending on the level of motivation with which we have been progressively developing the five pathway minds, we become aryas (‘ phags-pa, highly realized beings, “noble ones”):

  1. arya shravakas,

  2. arya pratyekabuddhas,

  3. arya bodhisattvas.

We continue to hold the name arya even when we achieve the purified states that have been our goals. Thus, Hinayana and Mahayana arhats (Buddhas) are included among aryas. Those who have not yet become aryas are termed ordinary beings (so-so’i skye-bo), even if they have achieved one of the first two pathway minds.

The Two Sets of Obscuration

As an arya with a seeing pathway mind, we begin to have on our mental continuums true stoppings (‘gog-bden, true cessations) and true pathway minds (lam-bden, true paths) – in other words, third and fourth noble truths. The true pathway minds are our nonconceptual cognitions of the four noble truths; the true stoppings are riddances (spang-ba, abandonments) of various factors that we need to rid ourselves of in order to attain liberation and enlightenment. True pathway minds are both the causal minds that bring about true stoppings as well as the resultant minds that have these true stoppings.

The Mahayana tenet systems classify the factors that we need to rid ourselves of into two sets of obscuration (sgrib-gnyis).

  1. emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) – obscurations that are disturbing emotions and attitudes and which prevent liberation;

  2. cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – obscurations regarding all knowables and which prevent omniscience.

The Hinayana tenet systems do not assert the two sets of obscuration. They accept that in order to attain either liberation or enlightenment, an arya needs to rid himself or herself of all the factors included among the emotional obscurations, but they do not call them emotional obscurations. For ease of discussion, however, we shall refer to these factors as “emotional obscurations.”

The various Indian tenet systems differ as to what constitutes each of the two sets of obscuration, as well as which factors within the two sets are gotten rid of by which level of pathway mind. Moreover, the various Tibetan schools have different explanations of the presentations given by the various Indian tenet systems. Differences also appear in the presentations found in sutra and the three lower classes of tantra, on the one hand, and in anuttarayoga tantra on the other. Here, however, as an introductory presentation of the topic, we shall contrast merely the Gelug Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and Gelug Prasangika-Madhyamaka assertions, within the context of sutra. For ease of discussion, we shall refer to these two sets of assertions merely as “Svatantrika” and “Prasangika.”

[For a fuller discussion, see: The Five Pathway Minds (The Five Paths): Advanced Presentation.]

Svatantrika

Unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance) may be about behavioral cause and effect or about reality. In the case of unawareness about reality, it may be unawareness of how persons exist or of how all phenomena exist, Unawareness of how persons exist entails grasping for an impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-‘dzin, grasping for the self of persons). Unawareness about how all phenomena exist entails grasping for an impossible soul of all phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-‘dzin, grasping for the self of all phenomena).

Persons are, of course, included among all phenomena. Thus, persons lack the same impossible soul that all phenomena lack. However, Svatantrika differentiates this impossible soul of all phenomena (including persons) from an impossible soul of only persons. The manner of existence of these two impossible souls is different. Moreover, only persons lack both an impossible soul of a person and an impossible soul of all phenomena. All phenomena other than persons lack only an impossible soul of all phenomena. An impossible soul of a person is irrelevant to phenomena other than persons.

According to Svatantrika, the emotional obscurations include:

  • Unawareness concerning how only persons exist, and the tendencies (sa-bon, seeds) of this unawareness.

  • Disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha, afflictive emotions), and their tendencies. For ease of discussion, we shall refer hereafter to disturbing emotions and attitudes merely as “disturbing emotions.”

The cognitive obscurations include:

  • Unawareness concerning how all phenomena exist, and the habits (bag-chags, instincts) of this unawareness.

  • The habits of unawareness concerning how only persons exist.

  • The habits of the disturbing emotions.

In the most general terms, tendencies give rise to something only occasionally, whereas habits give rise to something continually.

[For the finer distinctions between tendencies and habits, see: The Distinction between Tendencies and Habits Included in the Two Sets of Obscuration.]

Prasangika

Svatantrika and Prasangika have different assertions of the impossible souls that all phenomena lack. Be that as it may, the main structural difference between these two divisions of Madhyamaka concerning what constitutes each of the two sets of obscuration is that Prasangika includes unawareness concerning how all phenomena exist, and the tendencies of this unawareness, among the emotional obscurations; whereas Svatantrika includes this unawareness among the cognitive obscurations and asserts that it has only habits, no tendencies.

Thus, according to Prasangika, the emotional obscurations include:

  • Unawareness concerning how only persons exist, and the tendencies of this unawareness.

  • Disturbing emotions, and their tendencies.

  • Unawareness concerning how all phenomena exist, and the tendencies of this unawareness.

The cognitive obscurations include:

  • The habits of unawareness concerning how all phenomena exist.

  • The habits of unawareness concerning how only persons exist.

  • The habits of the disturbing emotions.

Doctrinally Based and Automatically Arising Obscurations

Within the sets of obscuration, the two types of unawareness as well as the disturbing emotions are ways of being aware of something (shes-pa). As such, they each include two types of factors: doctrinally based (kun-brtags, conceptually based) and automatically arising (lhan-skyes).

  • Doctrinally based obscurations come from learning and accepting certain assertions of an incorrect non-Buddhist Indian tenet system. Prasangika asserts that they may also come from learning and accepting certain assertions of a lower Buddhist tenet system.

  • Automatically arising obscurations come independently of having learned and accepted any incorrect tenet system of beliefs.

Because Svatantrika asserts that both the emotional and the cognitive sets of obscuration include ways of being aware of something, both sets include both doctrinally based and automatically arising factors.

  • Doctrinally based emotional obscurations have only tendencies.

  • Automatically arising emotional obscurations have both tendencies and habits.

  • Cognitive obscurations, both doctrinally based and automatically arising, have only habits.

Because Prasangika asserts the cognitive obscurations as including only habits, the division of doctrinally based and automatically arising obscurations does not apply to this set in its system.

What a Seeing Pathway Mind Gets Rid Of

From among the emotional obscurations, Svatantrika and Prasangika agree that the seeing pathway minds of shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas rid these three classes of aryas of the doctrinally based forms of these obscurations.

According to Svatantrika, if we are progressively developing the pathway minds as bodhisattvas, then, from among the cognitive obscurations, a Mahayana seeing pathway mind also rids us of the doctrinally based form of these obscurations.

Because Prasangika does not assert that the cognitive obscurations have a division into doctrinally based and automatically arising forms, a Mahayana seeing pathway mind does not rid us of any form of cognitive obscuration.

Both systems agree that not only the Hinayana seeing pathway minds, but none of the Hinayana pathways of mind rid us of cognitive obscurations.

Among the emotional obscurations, what shravaka seeing pathway minds get rid of (mthong-spang, abandonments of the path of seeing) are the doctrinally based forms associated with minds on each of the three planes of samsaric existence (khams-gsum, three realms), and their tendencies.

The three planes of samsaric existence are:

  1. the plane of sensory desires (‘ dod-khams, desire realm),

  2. the plane of ethereal forms (gzugs-khams, form realm),

  3. the plane of formless beings (gzugs-med khams, formless realm).

The latter two are called the two higher planes of samsaric existence (khams gong-ma).

A seeing pathway mind gets rid of doctrinally based disturbing emotions in relation to each of the four noble truths, first those associated with minds on the plane of sensory desires and then those associated with minds on the two higher planes.

The Accustoming Pathway Mind

With an accustoming pathway mind, we accustom ourselves to the nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths that we have gained with a seeing pathway mind.

There are nine grades of what an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of (sgom-spang, abandonments of the path of meditation). An accustoming pathway mind gets rid of them progressively. Thus, there are different levels of accustoming pathway minds according to the number of grades of obscuration it is rid of.

Svatantrika and Prasangika agree that the accustoming pathway minds of shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas rid these three classes of aryas of the automatically arising form of the emotional obscurations.

In addition,

  • Svatantrika asserts that, for arya bodhisattvas, a Mahayana accustoming pathway mind also rids us of the automatically arising form of the cognitive obscurations.

  • According to Prasangika, a Mahayana accustoming pathway mind also rids arya bodhisattvas of all the cognitive obscurations.

As for the order in which the nine grades of a Mahayana accustoming pathway mind rids arya bodhisattvas of what an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of:

  • According to Svatantrika, arya bodhisattvas start to rid themselves of both the automatically arising emotional obscurations and the automatically arising cognitive obscurations at the same time. They finish ridding themselves of the two sets of obscuration simultaneously. Thus, they achieve liberation and enlightenment simultaneously. .

  • According to Prasangika, bodhisattvas rid themselves of the automatically arising emotional obscurations first and only after they have completely removed all of them do they begin to rid themselves of the cognitive obscurations. Thus, bodhisattvas achieve liberation before they achieve enlightenment.

Hinyana System of Stream-Enterer, Once-Returner, Non-Returner, and Arhat

The division scheme of aryas into stream-enterer (rgyun-zhugs), once-returner (phyir-‘ong), non-returner (phyir mi-‘ong), and arhat (dgra-bcom) is unique to shravaka and pratyekabuddha aryas. It does not apply to arya bodhisattvas. Both Svatantrika and Prasangika accept this division scheme in this way.

Each of the four arya shravaka and arya pratyekabuddha stages has an enterer (zhugs-pa) and resultant abider (‘ bras-gnas) state, thus making eight enterer and resultant levels of Hinayana aryas (zhugs-gnas brgyad).

What a Hinayana accustoming pathway mind gets rid of includes nine grades of the automatically arising form of emotional obscurations associated with minds on the plane of sensory desires and nine grades associated with minds on the two higher planes of samsaric existence.

  • First, a Hinayana accustoming pathway mind gets rid of the first six grades of the automatically arising form of the emotional obscurations associated with minds on the plane of sensory desires.

  • Then it gets rid of the last three grades of them.

  • Following that, it gets rid of the nine grades of the automatically arising form of emotional obscurations associated with minds on the two higher planes of samsaric existence.

Thus, the eight enterer and resultant levels of Hinayana aryas are differentiated as follows:

  1. Enterer stream-enterers attain a seeing pathway mind and aim to get rid of the doctrinally based emotional obscurations associated with minds on the three planes of samsaric existence.

  2. Resultant abiding stream-enterers have achieved the eight purified awarenesses (liberated seeing pathway minds) and are rid of all doctrinally based emotional obscurations. At this stage, they still have seeing pathway minds.

  3. Enterer once-returners have achieved an accustoming pathway mind. Of the nine grades of automatically arising emotional obscurations associated with minds on the plane of sensory desires, they aim to get rid of the first six grades.

  4. Resultant once-returners are rid of all six grades. Because they will attain arhatship after only one more lifetime, they are called “once-returner.” In other words, they will return with another samsaric rebirth only one more time.

  5. Enterer non-returners aim to get rid of the last three of the nine grades of the automatically arising emotional obscurations associated with minds on the plane of sensory desires.

  6. Resultant abider non-returners are rid of all three grades. They are called “non-returner” because they will attain arhatship in this lifetime, without returning once more with a samsaric rebirth.

  7. Enterer arhats aim to get rid of all nine grades of automatically arising emotional obscurations associated with minds on the two higher planes of samsaric existence. They still have accustoming pathway minds.

  8. Resultant abider arhats get rid of all nine grades. Now, rid of all emotional obscurations, they reach their goals of either shravaka or prayekabuddha arhatship.

Svatantrika and Prasangika agree on all these points.

The Ten Bodhisattva Bhumis

The Mahayana seeing and accustoming pathway minds span ten bodhisattva “bhumis” (sa-bcu), ten levels of arya bodhisattva minds achieved before Buddhahood.

  • The Hinayana seeing and accustoming pathway minds are not divided into bhumi minds, although they too are divided into phases in which they progressively aim to get rid of a portion of something to be rid of and then progressively are rid of it.

The first seven-level bhumi minds are called the “unpurified bhumi minds” (ma-dag-pa’i sa), while the eighth through the tenth-level bhumi minds are the “purified bhumi minds” (dag-pa’i sa).

Maitreya specified that there are nine grades of what an accustoming mind gets rid of. Just as shravaka and pratyekabuddha accustoming pathway minds finish getting rid of all nine with the attainment of liberation, a bodhisattva accustoming mind finishes getting rid of them with the attainment of enlightenment. Each of the nine bhumi levels of mind, from the second through the tenth, rid arya bodhisattvas of one of the nine portions of what an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of. Each portion is associated with minds on the three planes of samsaric existence all together, not one at a time.

According to Svatantrika, each of the nine portions of what an accustoming mind gets rid of includes a portion of automatically arising emotional obscuration and a portion of automatically arising cognitive obscuration. With the attainment of enlightenment, arya bodhisattvas are rid of the two sets of obscuration simultaneously.

Prasangika asserts that the nine portions of what an accustoming mind gets rid of span six portions of automatically arising emotional obscuration and then three portions of cognitive obscuration. With the attainment of an eighth bhumi mind (the first of the three purified bhumi minds), arya bodhisattvas are rid of all the emotional obscurations and thus attain liberation. Only starting with purified bhumi minds do bodhisattvas rid themselves of the cognitive obscurations. With the attainment of enlightenment, bodhisattvas are rid of all cognitive obscurations and become Buddhas (bodhisattva arhats).

The Pathway Mind Needing No Further Training

With a pathway mind needing no further training, we have reached the level of bodhi that was our aim. Progressively developing the five pathway minds as Hinayana practitioners, we become either resultant abider shravaka arhats or resultant abider pratyekabuddha arhats, rid of the emotional obscurations. Progressively developing the five Mahayana pathway minds, we become Buddhas, rid of both sets of obscuration.

If, as resultant abider shravaka or pratyekabuddha arhats, we were to develop unlabored bodhichitta and become bodhisattvas, then in order to achieve enlightenment:

  • According to Svatantrika, we would need to develop first a Mahayana seeing pathway mind. This is because bodhisattvas begin to rid themselves of the cognitive obscurations with a seeing pathway mind.

  • According to Prasangika, we would start the Mahayana path with a liberated eighth level bhumi mind. This is because it is only with a purified bhumi mind that bodhisattvas begin to rid themselves of the cognitive obscurations.

[For further detail, see: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Advanced Presentation.]